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Éric Rohmer’s Battle of the Sexes

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The timelessness of Éric Rohmer has everything to do with the heart. It wants what it wants, but it also wants what it doesn’t want. For some, it’s the attention from girls who are good but not “good enough.”

Such girls are the primary concerns of young men who star in Rohmer’s early films. 1963’s Suzanne’s Career (La Carrière de Suzanne) and The Bakery Girl of Monceau (La Boulangère de Monceau) reveal the director’s lifelong commitment to young love and its complicated interworking of class and gender. The narration of the privileged, young men feels borderline misogynistic, but their fumbling selfishness represents an invitation to think. What people do and why is an endless mystery of social life. By elevating tiny dramas to the heights of narrative cinema, Rohmer broadened the scope of the medium, affording love’s underlying dynamics the significance it deserves.

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The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a 23-minute parable about a boy who meets a girl, loses the girl, flirts with another girl and then dumps the second girl because he got the first girl back. The story is told from the perspective of a tall and handsome law student (Barbet Schroeder), but sympathy lies with his backup girl — a clerk at a Parisian bakery (Claudine Soubrier). She’s short and wears a frumpy apron, but there’s something charming about the way she wraps the cookies, plopping them on tissue paper and twisting the edges. She’s amused by the law student’s attention and bats her eyelashes like a girl who wants to be seen. The law student buys more pastries, encouraging the girl’s affection, all the while admitting that someone “like her” isn’t good enough for him. His mindless consumption of the girl’s cookies comes to mirror his thoughtless treatment of the girl herself.

If it’s not already clear, Rohmer’s films are undergirded by class tensions. He exposes the shallowness of educated boys who think they should only date educated girls; boys who treat working-class women like playthings, distractions and guinea pigs for men’s superior mind games. But the narrators in these films disparage women not because they are bold or wise, but because they are not.

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When the law student bumps into the tall blonde he liked all along (Michèle Girardon), he dumps the bakery girl like a stale croissant. She never appears again and when the man ultimately marries the tall blonde, it’s as though Rohmer wants viewers to think he did the right thing. The bakery girl gets stood up, but who’s to say the man’s visits didn’t brighten her day? Both characters are equally flirty, and yet uncertainty remains. The bakery girl must have been hurt. Love, in Rohmer’s world, is full of such small catastrophes.

Suzanne’s Career is longer (54 minutes) and its handling of male-female courtship is even more puzzling. Bertrand (Philippe Beuzen) likes Sophie (Diane Wilkinson), but Sophie doesn’t like Bertrand. The man’s friend Guillaume (Christian Charrière) is crass and rich, and he can catch any girl he wants. In this case, the victim is Suzanne, a short and nerdy college girl from a slightly lower class. Bertrand watches Guillaume seduce Suzanne with both annoyance and admiration. He’s on Guillaume’s “team” until he sees Suzanne hiding her pain at a party where Guillaume is flirting with another girl. But emotions, which are the same as philosophical positions, can never stay the same. The next day, Bertrand feels nothing but contempt for Suzanne. She is from a lower class and not that pretty. Why would anyone like Guillaume want to be with someone like her?

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If Rohmer’s early films seem critical of women, it’s because they are. His male characters dissect the behavior of women with a Freudian know-it-all-ness. They pick and prod at the whims of women who are, at every turn, the faltering Eve to their Adam. But thank Godard it’s not that simple. Bertrand is miserable at the end of Suzanne’s Career. He still can’t charm the girl he likes, but Suzanne has landed a great guy. In Bertrand’s mind, Suzanne has won and if anything qualifies Rohmer’s mistreatment of female characters, it’s this: his willingness to let the women win. Suzanne gets the happy ending she deserves, and the bakery girl is probably better off too, free from having to date the kind of guy who would string a girl along. Rohmer values the experiences of women. He wants them to be wise.

Rohmer’s early films are important contributions to the French New Wave not only because they were shot on location using portable equipment, natural light and non-actors, but because they do something that no filmmaker had done before. They tell love stories with ideas. They mine class dynamics with barely a mention of money. They’re about young people arguing in tight, messy spaces, about parties where boys namedrop Mondrian, about women who say, “All men want to do is sleep with you” and then sleep with them anyway. Without Rohmer, we might not have the insular, indie wandering of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), the status-conscious social climbers of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) or the philosophical musings of Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip (2014).

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By the end of Suzanne’s Career and The Bakery Girl, one could argue that Bertrand and the law student have grown, or learned, but that’s not necessarily true. Rohmer cares more about posing questions than providing the comfort of a conclusion. As mercurial as Suzanne and the bakery girl are in the narrators’ eyes, they are perhaps the most clear-headed of all. They’re the women who get the movies named after them. They’re the characters you remember. Take a look for yourself. They’re on the cover of The Criterion Collection releases.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.

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